This Article is From Jan 28, 2014

25 years after exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, questions over return remain

Srinagar: For the past nine years, government facilities like the one created at Sheikhpora on the outskirts of Srinagar continue to pose a question: why are Kashmiri Pandits not coming back despite the return of peace coupled with government packages to woo them back?

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah admits the government needs to double its efforts for their return by increasing financial assistance and instilling a sense of security.  

"Every right-thinking Kashmiri wants Kashmiri Pandits to come back. They accept that the departure of Kashmiri Pandits has been a great blot on what we have proudly called our culture of tolerance and Kashmiriyat. I don't expect a situation where overnight as they (Pandits) left, they will come back. The return will be far more gradual than the departure. But we need to make a start," Mr Abdullah said.

But the question haunting everyone is why and how Kashmiri Pandits at the first place had to leave their homeland. There are competing narratives.

Did the government headed by then Governor Jagmohan cause their exodus or did militancy drive them out? Kashmiri poet and writer Zareef Ahmad Zareef alleges that it was the administration that facilitated the exodus.

"Under official patronage, they were taken out from here. They (government) provided them trucks and transport and took them away during nights. At that time people were scared to venture out even during the day time. It was clearly a conspiracy. Whose conspiracy and what did they achieve by throwing these innocents on road? Some even did not get a place on roads. I don't know why these innocents were punished. And we are still suffering here," Zareef said.

But former IPS officer Masood Choudhary, posted in Srinagar during those turbulent times, denies the allegation. He, however, admits the government was not able to prevent it either. "He (Jagmohan) did try to take measures to see the people who are under threat - Pandits or Muslims  - should be given due protection. But perhaps that was beyond our limitation and we could not do that," he said.

Irrespective of different narratives of the exodus, there is no ambiguity about their return across the political divide in Kashmir.

"I think the biggest loss for Kashmiri Muslims is the loss of its Pandit component because that killed a civilisation, culture and a society. So it is in the interest of those who live in Kashmir that we get them back. I know there are rabble rousers on both sides," says Naeem Akhtar of the People's Democratic Party.

Some, however, believe the biggest stumbling block in the return of Pandits is the sale of their ancestral houses and properties. Even as the government says they have already provided 1500 jobs to migrant youths in the Valley, the BJP says nothing substantial has been done and that government claims are just a whimper.

"When there is no security for them, no houses to live in, no jobs, no schools and no colleges, then I think it is just a show off. Till these things are provided, I think they should not return," Ashok Khajuria of the BJP said.

A lot of water has flown down the Jhelum since 1990. The question is whether the homecoming of Kashmiri Pandits is about government policies or about both the communities rebuilding their centuries-old bond of Kashmiriyat and reconciling to the new realities on the ground.